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HAMMOND — The Morton Governors football team proudly walked out onto Maury Zlotnik Field behind the flag of the United States last Friday.

A couple miles away, the Hammond Wildcats stood together while the national anthem was played at West Side. Like the 'Cats have done for decades, when the closing words were sang, "O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave," they collectively raised their helmets. Together, as one.

This also occurred last Friday night.

On the same night in Huntsville, Alabama, President Donald Trump gave a speech at a rally where he said, "Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired.' "

Trump strongly chastised pro football players who kneel Sundays while the national anthem is played.

Hammond football coach Roosevelt Moore asked after Tuesday's practice when the last time a U.S. president called fellow citizens such a derogatory name in a public setting.

Morton senior linebacker and tight end Joseph Wharton put his perspective on the heated debate in sharp terms.

"It's cool for people to stand up for what they believe in," Wharton said. "It's not about the flag. It's not about the anthem. It's not about the military. It's about what Trump said."

The discussion

This debate began a year ago when 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started kneeling during the anthem to protest perceived police brutality in minority neighborhoods.

West Side football coach Jason Johnson played three seasons in the NFL with the Denver Broncos, Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints, along with playing for the Frankfurt Galaxy of the World League of American Football.

He said last season after Kaepernick's demonstration began, several of his players decided to do a similar protest. They asked Johnson, who asked his administration, which told Johnson they would prefer this not happen at the high school level.

So it didn't.

Johnson said he believes there are two Americas. He understands many whites do not understand why many blacks hold this issue closely to their hearts. The same symbols have different meanings in different communities of color.

The Cougars coach believes this is the core of the current controversy.

"The same flag that many whites respect was up in the air during slavery," Johnson said. "The household I was raised in was not the household you were raised in. Millions of African-Americans don't value those kind of things, because that institution was part of the assassination of our people."

What it's about

Johnson believes this protest is different than the one Kaepernick started. He said this one isn't about police attacking black people, but about Trump attacking the NFL.

Being a former player, he said he understands what Steelers lineman Alejandro Villanueva did at Soldier Field on Sunday. The Army vet stood by himself with his hand over his heart during the anthem and became a hero to many opposed to the protests.

On Monday, Villanueva's jersey shot to No. 1 among NFL players' uniforms being sold. While many fans burned their NFL jerseys out of anger against the perceived disrespect for the flag and the anthem.

Villanueva later said he threw his teammates under the bus by standing for the anthem. But Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said he had a sleepless night after Sunday's actions, showing how divisive this issue is.

"Villanueva fought for this country, for this flag and he did what he felt he had to do," Johnson said. "None of us know what his experience has been like. And if you're not man enough to understand what he did and why he did it, I don't know. I hope what we all learn from this is we all need to learn to empathize with other people."

Morton football coach Sean Kinsey comes from a mixed-race family: his mother is white and his father is black. He grew up in Merrillville, residing 10 minutes from his mom's parents.

"They would not meet with me until I was 23 years old," Kinsey said. "So don't tell me racism doesn't exist in America anymore."

Not a distraction

Kinsey said he had no problem with the NFL protests over the weekend. He said 99 percent of pro players are good guys and that the media jumps on the negative stories to put the league in a negative light.

He said it is very possible to love this country at the same time, while trying to bring positive changes to neighborhoods overlooked or people left out of the loop.

"For me, personally, I wasn't distracted by it," Kinsey said. "Those guys should be able to do what they feel they need to do. Remember, those are good men taking a knee. They just might have a different point of view than you do.

"It's an honor for people to say not everything is all right in this country. Once we realize that we can start to make changes to make it better."

Kinsey is proud that his team ran out holding the American flag up high last Friday night.

He also said he would support any of his players who chose to take a knee during the anthem.

"It felt real good running out with the flag last Friday night," Morton senior Jordan Mielenz said. "It brings us all together. We are brothers."

Response

On Friday night, Morton will travel to Hammond for a big game in the Great Lakes Athletic Conference. The Governors will run out holding up the flag. And the Wildcats will raise their helmets together at the end of the national anthem.

Yet, many of the players on both teams support what the NFL players are doing.

"I understand where they're coming from," Hammond senior Isaiah Smith said. "The system favors white people. Or, it doesn't favor black people or Mexicans."

Smith said he absolutely supports the military, pointing out that a lot of minority men and women make up America's armed forces.

"(The NFL players) are fighting back at what the President said," Smith said. "I don't think he should've said that."

Wildcats seniors Jaron Price and Senor Lindsey agreed with what the NFL players did this past weekend, but the two also spoke about a hope that America's fractured culture can somehow come together.

In some way.

"Those guys really care about what's going on," Price said. "Like when our team raises our helmets up, we do it together."

"You can't win with only two or three guys," Lindsey added.

Coach Moore doesn't like to see combative politics engaging in athletics.

"A lot of people are making it about the flag, but that's not the issue, it's not about that," said Moore, agreeing it is a response to Trump's words. "I hope we all can come together. We all have to find some solidarity through this. I think it's good the conversation about these issues is going on.

"But we all live in the United States of America. So we have to stay united as one people."

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Sports reporter

Steve has won awards during two different stints at The Times. In addition to being the Prep Beat columnist, he covers football, boys basketball and boys track. He is a long-suffering Cubs fan.